Enjoy museums, shops, art galleries, restaurants and the riverside market in this medieval town, high above the River Gers. Don’t miss the last great Gothic Cathedral of Sainte-Marie. Its exquisitely carved oak choir stalls took 50 years to decorate. There’s also a magnificent organ and 18 red and gold stained glass windows by Gascon artist Arnaud de Moles which glow in the sunlight. Tour d’Armagnan, 40m high, was an ecclesiastical court and fourteenth century prison.
A statue of Gascony’s most famous character, Alexandre Dumas’s mercenary musketeer, d’Artagnan, stands on a terrace above the tree-lined river. The real life count lived at Chateau de Castlemore nearby and his heavily fictionalised memoirs were Dumas’s inspiration.
Explore the upper old town with ancient narrow stairways known as pousterles and admire the lovely buildings in pedestrianised rue Dessoles. Musee des Jacobins nearby, is one of France’s oldest museums, established in 1793 in a former convent. Here you’ll find a wonderful collection of South American and pre-Columbian art donated to the town, as well as regional art, traditional Gascon costumes, pottery and furniture, and Gallo-Roman artefacts. The resistance movement in Gers is celebrated in a museum on rue des Pagodoutes.
Walking tours to see the town’s treasures or along the banks of the Gers can be booked at the Tourist Office located in a beautiful fifteenth century house near Musee des Jacobins.
Named after the Italian city of Florence, Fleurance is one of Gers’s best known Bastide towns dating from 1272. Today, this little town beside the River Gers is a thriving commercial centre with shops and restaurants and an excellent Tuesday morning market in the arcaded town square. The nineteenth century covered halles is supported at each corner by statue fountains representing the 4 seasons. Visit the Gothic church of St-Laurent to admire the fine stained-glass windows by sixteenth century Gascon artist, Arnaud de Moles.
Condom is Gers’s second largest town and capital of the Tenareze Armagnac region. Its port on the river Baise was important in the nineteenth century for shipping brandy down river to Bordeaux. (Interestingly some of the white stone mansions in both places look similar.) Today, the quays are busy with tourists boarding boats for river tours. Visits to Condom’s Armagnac museum, give a fascinating insight into the history and distillation of this fine golden brandy and how it differs from Cognac. A collection of old wine-making materials includes an 18 ton press. You’ll easily find tastings at various Armagnac houses around the town like Jean du Vignau and Janneau. Ask at the Tourist Office for more details.
Condom is sometimes known as the town of 100 towers because of the many fortified houses built by tenth and eleventh century noblemen. Be sure to visit sixteenth century Cathedral St-Pierre which dominates the town and is one of the last great buildings in Gers built in the Gothic style. Note the 24 flamboyant statues on the south portal and intense light in the interior. On the second weekend in May, the whole of Condom comes alive with music during the Bandas y Penas - see Culture and Events.
The site of this luxury fourth century villa belonging to an aristocratic family also reveals traces of houses from the sixth and seventh century Merovingian period and is thought to be the most important excavation of its kind in South West France. The villa was constructed to a classical plan with a central square courtyard surrounded by Pyrenean marble columns. It also had its own thermal baths and floors of wonderful multi-coloured mosaic tiles in over 30 patterns. More excavations have taken place recently and many items, including some mosaics, are on display 2km away in the Gallo-Roman museum in the Tourist Office of the thirteenth century Bastide village of Montreal. Ask there about guided tours.
The smallest fortified village in France, sometimes referred to as a mini Carcassonne, looks very much from the outside as it did in the twelfth century. The 270m of high moated ramparts are entered via a gatehouse and bridge through double arcaded doors. Within the walls houses cluster around a sturdy keep and fortified Romanesque church. Larressingle was once the retreat of the bishops of Condom. Time your visit right and you will certainly get a feeling of life safely shut away from turbulent times, but in such a confined space even a few visitors can quickly return the mood to the twenty first century. A museum showing models of life in the Middle Ages is open in the summer months and will appeal to children as will the mock siege camp outside the walls, displaying working models of ancient war machines.
The beneficial waters of the 3 thermal spas of Gers offer a variety of therapeutic treatments in modern centres where you can relax and de-stress.
The Chaine Thermale du Soleil in the beautiful floral village of Barbotan-les-Thermes has thermal medical packages for rheumatism, stress and vein problems. Open Mar to end Nov mornings only (all day Sept and Oct). Tel: (00 33) 8 25 00 19 77.
Thermal Centres at Castera-Verduzan and Lectoure are open all year and supply both medical therapies and relaxing beauty treatments such as mud wraps, aromatherapy massages and saunas and thermal swimming pool. Castera-Verduzan has a casino and swimming lake and specializes in digestive and metabolic problems. Lectoure, set on a high escarpment with breathtaking views of the Pyrenees, is one of Gers’s oldest towns dating back to Roman times. Make time to visit its architectural and archaeological treasures. The spa here specialises in treating rheumatic diseases. Spa treatments in both centres include an aquagym and baby swimming lessons. Lectoure, tel: (00 33) 8 25 32 03 20 and Castera-Verduzan, tel: (00 33) 8 25 32 03 20.
Gers has an amazing 146 castles around which castlenau villages grew up. Some chateaux are now centres of wine and Armagnac production. The lovely thirteenth century Chateau de Cassaigne was once the home of the bishops of Condom and is now owned by distant members of the same family. It sits amidst 30 hectares of vineyards dedicated to the production of Armagnac. Visitors are offered free tasting along with their tour. Tel: (00 33) 5 62 28 04 02.
Sixteenth century Chateau de Monluc at St-Puy is built on the ruins of an earlier chateau fort and still retains some ramparts. There are wonderful views and the arched cellars house an ancient wine press. Chateau vineyards produce Cotes de Gascogne red, white and rose wines and Armagnac from which their famous Pousse Rapiere cocktail is made. Free visits and tastings. Closed January. Tel: (00 33) 5 62 28 94 00. www.monluc.fr
Chateau de Lavardens perched on a rocky promontory above the little village of Lavardens is open all year to the public with guided tours, except mid Jan - mid Feb. Once home to the counts of Armagnac, the original sixteenth century building was begun on the site of a twelfth century fortress and finally restored in 1979. Art exhibitions are often held there. Tel: (00 33) 5 62 5j8 10 61 or see www.chateaulavardens.com for more. Barran is a Bastide village on the Santiago de Compostela route and Chateau de Mazeres close by was the summer residence of the old archbishops of Auch. It was used as a military hospital during WWI and has guided tours. Other chateaux offering guided tours are Chateau de Flamarens, the sixteenth century Chateau Caumont at Cazaux-Saves and Chateau Le Pimbat de Cruzalet at Vic-Fezensac. Local Tourist Offices will have details of many more.
Gers is one large garden. Villages, towns and parks blossom throughout the season. The regional Tourist Office has put together a tour of villes et villages fleuris beginning at Auch and visiting places like Ordan-Larroque (which won a national prize), Blaziert, Roques, Condom, Riscle and Lectoure. Check local Tourist Offices for flower markets and festivals and visit some of the many gardens open to the public.
Palmeraie du Sarthou at Betous is an exotic garden of palms and bananas. Open all year each day, except January and Thursdays October to May. Organic fruits can be bought in season including peaches and prunes, nuts and kiwis. Tel: (00 33) 5 62 09 01 17.
Award-winning Jardins de Corsiana can be found alongside the St Jacques de Compostela route on the edge of picturesque La Romieu. It has an English garden, kitchen garden, arboretum - 6 hectares of rare trees and shrubs from 5 continents - and garden of medicinal and aromatic plants. There’s a teashop, and boutique to buy jams, fruit juices and wonderful local plums. Open mid-Apr - end Sept. Check website for current times. Tel: (00 33) 5 62 68 22 80 www.jardinsdecoursiana.com
All the family will be fascinated by the unique adventure into the world of carnivorous plants at Le Jardin Carnivore, Peyrusse-Massas. The national collection of specialist vegetables is also here along with a swamp garden, nursery and films. Closed Sept to end of May. See www.natureetpaysages.fr for details of opening times or tel: (00 33) 5 62 65 52 48.
The Bastide settlements of South West France are a legacy of this battleground of the Middle Ages. Almost a third of Gers’s towns and villages can trace their history to these thirteenth and fourteenth century planned new towns built on defensive sites behind strong walls with a grid of streets around an arcaded square. Gers was very much on the front line during the Hundred Years War and both French and English wanted to colonise and defend their conquests. Farmers would be offered a home in these planned settlements, in return for freedom from serfdom and other rights. However, they were required to pay taxes to the landowner. Discover the medieval architecture of these picturesque towns and villages of honey-coloured houses, large churches, fine covered markets and interesting pigeonniers and wash houses. Many are also Plus Beaux Villages de France. Visit the oldest Bastides, Montreal-du-Gers and Miradoux, both built in the 1250s; Cologne, which followed the fashion for calling the new towns after important European cities; Barran and Marciac with their twisted church spires; Fources which has the only circular arcade in Gers, Mielan, Mirande and St-Clar built on a hill, plus many more.